Topics: Program Design & Delivery
Implementing social learning initiatives in order to ensure a return on the investment of time and money is critical to chief learning officers or directors of learning technologies. Success is a lot more than selecting the right software or coming up with a good design that can evolve as your business evolves, and this is especially true with implementing a community system. If you are considering the launch of a new online community, and many companies have used communities successfully for learning and for improving corporate collaboration, you'll want to pre-populate the site with content to make sure that you enourage participation in order to create the community and meet your criteria for success. Known as "seeding the community," this effort provides valuable materials and established common values, setting expectations of the experience for — and of — the group. By providing sufficient examples of the various content types, you are helping make the initial experience with the community meaningful and "sticky", in turn creating a working, vibrant community that encourages people to "hang out" in the new space. To seed your community effectively, you'll need to identify and build relationships with targeted members, develop initial discussion topics, identify experts that can help develop content in those topics, and schedule events that link to the topics chosen.
If the community members are already identified, such as people in a certain role or with particular expertise, the community manager needs to develop personal relationships with as many of the community members as possible. Why? Because people tend to be more willing to change their behavior for someone they know, and participating in a new community is a new behavior. In addition, you will want to garner some pre-launch assistance, and tapping people you already know is likely to be more productive than approaching strangers. If you already know many of the members, great. If not, you can host an in-person event to explain the vision of the new community, gather some feedback, and let them know who you are and your role in the community -- be sure to reserve some time for one-on-one conversations. If you can't gather in person, consider a virtual meeting. If the number of potential members in the community is prohibitive, consider inviting a random sample of members to these meetings, or hold a series of them. And, of course, there is always the phone.
The first step in seeding the site is to pick a short list of the most interesting and important topics identified through your conversations with members. Having a short list of topics — maybe about four or five — will enable you to better guide the seeding activities. There is value in letting the topics bubble up from conversations within the group over time, but you do need something to start with, an initial series of topics that help define the norms of the community and establish both the topics and the approach to these topics.
You can't provide all of the content yourself. In fact, enlisting the help of others will increase the site's chances of success, as it will give others a stake in its success. Poll or invite members to act as your "seeding assistants". These volunteers will go into the community platform to post (blogs, discussion starters, etc.), reply to posts, upload files, comment on videos or other files, etc. Be sure to clarify some initial ground rules of the community so that the seeded content sets the tone and is appropriate for the vision of the community. In addition, be clear with the time frame for this seeding activity. You may find it effective to set aside a specific number of days for asking questions, posting, etc., and then following that, more days for nothing but replying and commenting.
The seeding will be even more effective if you have identified topic experts ahead of time and personally invite them to participate in the seeding activities. Their expertise will be particular useful in replying to and commenting on the seeded questions and posts. Consider how these subject matter experts will find personal value in the community, such as through recognition, reward, or the opportunity to network with fellow experts. It is possible that SMEs can be trained to be community managers themselves, with permissions such as moderating discussions, inviting members, etc. This may be particularly helpful if sub-groups are formed to address specific topic categories.
People are more likely to participate in a community if they have experienced an in-person event with others in the community, and events help to deepen the interrelationships of members. Providing a few events to coincide with the launch of the community site will show members when they join that this is a well planned and active community. These can be in-person or virtual meet-up sessions, synchronous chats, or events such as webinars or case study presentations that are specific to the community topics. Make sure, however, to allow sufficient time for people to network, one on one. What might seem like back-channel chatter actually strengthens the bonds between members and makes the community that much more valuable. Remember, though, that the experience of the event begins with good communication practices: make it easy for people to access information about the events and to register, if registration is necessary.
By seeding a community with enough content to show that people can share, learn, and apply what they learn, you will maximize the chances of success at the very critical point of launching the community. If you take the time to imagine what you would do if you were invited to a new online community and saw nothing but an empty shell, you will realize how important these pre-launch steps are. Seeding the community and preparing the way for the first few interactions assures that the community is poised for success. The rest is up to the art of community management.
This article supports theCorpU 12 Dimensions of Learning Excellence - Execute (Program Design and Delivery)
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